The reason many authors end up disappointed, misled, or even crushed by critiques they receive is they fail to give beta readers clear instructions about what they actually need to know. And without a clear sense of what you need to know, readers will often go to one of two extremes: cheerleading or nitpicking, that is, giving only positive or only negative feedback.
Well, writer friends, the truth is you need BOTH. If others tell you everything is perfect, you'll stop listening to your own intuition and ignore niggling issues you haven't yet figured out how to fix. If others tell you they see problems, problems, problems, you'll end up in a slash and burn mentality when revising and destroy the best parts of your story.
The solution is actually quite simple: Always give your beta readers clear guidance about what kinds of feedback you want. And conversely, if someone asks you beta read, don't be shy about asking them to provide some guidelines.
Clearly, what constitutes "constructive criticism" can depend very much on individual temperament, past history, and self concept. You alone know what sorts of feedback will energize or crush you. For example, I appreciate readers who find my typos and missing words, while others will unnecessarily beat themselves up for very simple, easy to fix errors. (You spend years editing people with PhDs, and you realize even frighteningly smart people at the world's top universities have typos and dangling modifiers. Nothing to freak out about; fix it and move along.)
With that caveat, I share below some sample beta reader guidelines that you're welcome to use, or adapt to your own particular feedback needs.
Sample beta reader guideline letter
Thank you for your willingness to read and offer comments on my manuscript. As you read, please respond to the following questions and mark any areas you think I should give more attention. Feel free to e-mail comments as you go if that’s easier. I’d like to receive everyone’s comments by [deadline].
Overall impressionsWhat parts of the story did you enjoy most? Feel free to mark scenes that you feel are especially strong.
Does the story feel balanced--giving adequate time to the right things? Are there parts you feel need more or less emphasis?
Can you tell who the intended audience is? Why or why not?
Are there any elements that I've completely overlooked you think I need to consider or incorporate?
CharacterAre the characters engaging and adequately complex? Do you care about them and enjoy getting to know them deeply, even the antagonists?
Which characters do you most connect with and why?
Are characters’ voices distinct in the dialogue? If not, note where you hear problems.
Do the peripheral characters work in supporting the main story without being overly distracting? Do any feel underdeveloped or overdeveloped relative to their importance to the story? Which ones do you feel need more or less emphasis?
Does the main character adequately change through conflict, climax and resolution?
PlotDoes the story move forward and keep you reading more? Note where your interest is especially engaged and where it lags.
Does the plot hang together and make sense? Do you see any "plot holes"--illogical or impossible events, as well as statements or events that contradict earlier events in the storyline?
Do the plot twists and complications work, or do they seem contrived or hokey?
Do characters appear to have sufficient motivation for what they do? If not, note where you “just don’t buy it.”
Are scenes paced well in terms of building and releasing tension? If not, note places where the story drags or races.
ThemeCan you identify the theme?
Does it come across in a non-preachy way? Note anything that strikes you as heavy-handed.
MechanicsNote word choices that don’t quite seem right in terms of tone within a scene, or because a particular character just wouldn’t use that word.
Please note any spelling errors, homophone errors (using the wrong sound-alike word), grammar gaffes, punctuation funkiness, and missing words.
Note any continuity errors you see (e.g. wearing a coat in part of the scene and not having it later in the same scene).
If there are particular parts of your story that you feel less confident about-- perhaps that bend genre or are a bit experimental for you--make sure you ask specifically for feedback on those elements.
What questions would you add to your own list?